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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

Flawed, but fun "Indy" hasn't aged a day, even if he has

“And the stars look very different today…”

So goes the David Bowie song that will never not sound weird coming out of an Indiana Jones movie, but the lyrics above come just as Indy turns off the radio in what is now the late ‘60s. We’ve just been treated to a 10-minute opener that takes place in Nazi Germany (the Indy specialty) and now we’re in present-day with him, living alone in an apartment, yelling at his young neighbors to turn their music down. The prologue has Harrison Ford going through the motions, but through the miracle(?) of de-aging, he looks as youthful as ever, even if his voice sounds nothing like it did 40 years ago. Are we okay with this? We’ve been aksing ourselves that since Scorsese’s “The Irishman” started normalizing the process back in 2018. How else to give audiences an Indy-like thrill without having to remind everyone right off the bat that Indy is–gasp!--old? Yes, the star looks very different today.

In the case of this opening sequence, I suppose I’m fine with them trying it out, since this will likely be the last time Ford puts on the fedora and brandishes the famous bullwhip. The scene establishes our villain, Dr. Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), and everything about it will pay off later, as has often been the case. But what is the central payoff the audience gets from having a fifth entry into a franchise that saw its heyday over thirty years ago? What is there left to discover about one of the most iconic film heroes of all time, from a series that has almost always been surface-level entertainment? Giving Indy one last run from the Nazis, whether through de-aging or through a sheer act of will from an 80-year-old Ford, does carry with it a certain necessary realization that the Marvel movies will eventually explore: Our heroes have to age, have to lose a bit of their vigor, have to employ the aid of a younger, more agile hero-in-the-making. Is that how we want to see our heroes? Perhaps not, but “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” wisely lets Ford play the age and, in doing so, humanizes Indiana Jones in a way that makes for a graceful exit.

The plot is the plot and involves artifacts (namely, the gotta-look-it-up-every-time-I-want-to-say-it Archemedes’ dial). Part of it lies in the hands of the villain, another part of it may lie at the bottom of a lake. A series of maps and legends and intuition from the daughter of a former colleague of Jones’s, Helena (Phoebe Waller Bridge), sets the reluctant Indy off on a new adventure, fresh from a lame retirement party at his university and away from the lonely confines of his apartment. We go from New York to Tangier and elsewhere to see our heroes get double-crossed, go deep-sea diving, endure car chase after car chase, get separated and reunited and finally end up in an unpredictable predicament that would spoil everything if I were to even hint at it here. I cannot say what happens, but it puts Indy in a situation I never knew I wanted for him, one that could serve as a kind of metaphor for the arrested adolescence that might see this film and sneer at the idea of Indiana Jones being even close to human (I really wish I didn't have to be vague about this).

The most glaring omission this time around, of course, is Steven Spielberg in the director’s chair. James Mangold, who bravely stepped into his shoes, has certainly proven himself capable of taking something sacred to many and challenging their expectations. His take on “Logan” saw Wolverine not as a straight-up Marvel character, but as a complex antihero straight out of a noir film in a movie that felt anything but slick. Here, Mangold is more beholden to the series’ archetypes and tropes, but that allows him to get away with a third act that feels more and more like a brave choice the more one thinks about it. It also lets some of the fan service that exists here (it’s kept to a minimum) have more of a place and purpose as Indy is forced to take a look at where his life has led him.

What’s missing, though, is Spielberg’s eye and sense of play. Mangold doesn't quite have the confidence to try for any kind of wizardry with a tracking shot or to frame his characters in a way that makes for memorable single images. Mangold has strengths, but they’re not born from his personality as a director. They’re born from just being good at doing an action scene or a cliffhanger. He’s good at it, but with every Indy movie before this, we always felt Spielberg was the one taking us on a ride. There existed a nice camaraderie there between him and Ford. Part of the problem also lies in what the special effects wizards are able to accomplish now as opposed to thirty or forty years ago. There is a lot of visual background noise going on that we never had as much of before and that makes it hard for some of these action sequences to stand out. The underwater sequence involving eels is one Mangold and his team just cannot pull off.

Still, there remains a lot of fun to be had in “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.” Waller-Bridge makes for a compelling ally whom you’re not sure you ever really trust. The ending is quite moving. And seeing Ford playing the age instead of running away from it makes one grateful for this last chance. There is also a lot to be said for being allowed to engage with this franchise again, one born out of a love for pulpy adventure novels and comic books of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Seeing the spirit of that era of pop culture in a time when the weight of the world seems to rest on the shoulders of Marvel, DC and other IP, it’s nice to just see an aging guy with a gun and bullwhip make his way through dogfights, car chases and even more bugs just to retrieve something that belongs in a museum.

Keep your expectations reasonable and just enjoy it while it lasts.

Rating: (***)

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